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Fate Forces a Change in Williams' Biographer

October 30, 2000|ALLAN M. JALON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Since the Greeks, playwrights have traced the primal drama of succession. Portrayals of playwrights' lives don't usually turn on the question of who follows the dead. But now that New Yorker theater critic John Lahr will finish a biography of Tennessee Williams, after the death of acclaimed biographer Lyle Leverich, we'll get an unusual look at how two very different writers face one great career.

It's the latest chapter in a saga with elements of "The Wizard of Oz" (in which Lahr's father, Bert Lahr, played the Cowardly Lion). You could compare Leverich, who had never written anything in his life, to innocent Dorothy. The Oz he landed in, in 1979, was the Tennessee Williams estate.

He was dropped there by a tornado named Tennessee, who stunned friends during the notoriously chaotic last era of his life by suddenly naming Leverich, a gentle man not much more than an acquaintance, his authorized biographer. Lyle who? His friends begged Williams to change his mind. He didn't, giving Leverich, in writing, access to eye-opening archival material.

After Williams died in 1983, Leverich faced a wicked witch--Maria St. Just--the estate's difficult co-trustee, who saw a usurping rube in Leverich and made him wait until she died in 1994 before he could even start trying to publish the first volume of his biography: "Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams" (Crown).

In 1997 the book rose like a hot-air balloon, winning rave reviews, and making Leverich, the biographer from nowhere, a kind of legend. But then, last year, pushing into his second volume, the 79-year-old biographer died. Enter Lahr, who had helped Leverich along the way, was the author of highly regarded books and a passionate Williams advocate, the man Leverich named in his publishing contract as his favored successor.

Working on last-minute contract details for Lahr, Alane Salierno Mason, the project's editor at W.W. Norton, said last week, "As far as we're concerned, it's official." As Lahr starts his version of Williams' life, having done an interview with Gore Vidal and planning another with Elia Kazan, he compares Leverich and himself to Pony Express riders.

"He took one horse as far as Chicago and I'm going to take it as far as San Francisco. It's a different horse and a different journey." Their journeys divide, Lahr says, into the two main eras of Williams' life, between struggling obscurity and fame. Leverich writes sensitively about a writer discovering himself, escaping his troubled family, going to college, making first friends and professional contacts. His book ends in 1945, after the "The Glass Menagerie" becomes a career-making hit, and introduces a new lyricism amid the World War II period's prevailing fashion for realism. "Awaiting Williams was what he called 'the catastrophe of success' "--that's Leverich's ominous last line.

"Until Williams became famous," says Lahr, "it was essentially a one-ring circus. And after he became famous, it was a three-ring circus. You had the world of his work, you had the world of his celebrity, and you had his sexual/inner world. The story is really quite different and you can't deal with it in the same linear way that you dealt with the first volume. "

It's hard to know how Leverich ultimately would have managed the new dimension that included Broadway and Hollywood, travel on several continents and the dizzily active years of the 1950s and '60s. But last summer, assessing the project, Lahr visited the roomy split-level house in San Rafael, north of San Francisco, where Leverich lived toward the end of a patchwork life that included stints as a theater producer and bookstore owner. Among the old biographer's extensive notes, stored in five well-kept filing cabinets, Lahr found the manuscript of the second volume, more than 500 pages that took Williams from 1945 to 1950.

Its length, in proportion to the time it covered, surprised Lahr. He stresses his admiration for Leverich's "extraordinary accomplishment," but sees a lack of structural dexterity in his early approach to Volume 2. "What he did was--you can't blame him for it--he tried to do it linearly. You have to do it in a different way." The key, Lahr believes, is to "pull the narrative through" a powerful set of thematic, interpretive ideas.

"You have to impose a point of view on the material to organize such a large amount of material. In Williams, you have a man who wrote eight hours a day, including thousands of letters. Art was how he negotiated with life. You have to find a way of leaping, so that one doesn't get bogged down. I want to integrate the drama of ideas in the plays with the drama of the life." Lahr, a biographer of playwrights Joe Orton and Noel Coward, wants to explore "how prescient Williams was in depicting the changing moods of the culture. For instance, if you look at the characters in 'The Glass Menagerie,' they are characters of the '30s, completely of the '30s.

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